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Wisconsin restaurants still struggling through pandemic

A social distancing sign on a table at Acoustic Café in Eau Claire, Wis.
A social distancing sign on a table at Acoustic Café in Eau Claire, Wis.(Max Cotton)
Published: Mar. 17, 2021 at 6:49 PM CDT
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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) - Wednesday is a grim milestone in Wisconsin. On March 17, 2020, Gov. Tony Evers issued his first COVID-19 safety restrictions on restaurants and bars in the state. Though the order was overturned in court, a year later, they’re still struggling.

“It’s been kind of a tumultuous year, for sure,” Acoustic Café General Manager Morgan Hines-Munson said.

Despite the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s May 2020 decision to throw out Evers’ orders on bars and restaurants, Hines-Munson said Acoustic Café is still putting safety first.

“We never stopped that,” she said. “As a business we just felt the safest thing to do was follow those guidelines.”

Hines-Munson said the restaurant started by service to curbside orders for a few months. Since then, Acoustic Café has operated at 25 percent capacity.

“It’s been rough. It really has been,” she said.

Acoustic Café is not alone.

“We know that there’s a public health emergency and we know that there isn’t the confidence that dining out is safe and so restaurants are having to figure out how to manage that whole process and it’s been really difficult,” Wisconsin Restaurant Association (WRA) President and CEO Kristine Hillmer said.

Despite there being three FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines on the market, things look bleak. A WRA survey shows about one-in-ten Wisconsin restaurants think they won’t survive more than a few months without additional government stimulus programs like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

Hillmer said the recently passed American Rescue Plan, which expands PPP, will help.

“PPP was a good shot in the arm but it wasn’t perfect but we continue to see shutdowns with restaurants,” she said. “So there is a need for a restaurant specific relief package and there is one within this.”

Restauranteurs also aren’t convinced things will return to normal soon. According to a February 2021 National Restaurant Association survey of 3,000 eatery operators, about one-third think it will take 7-12 months to return to normal. About another third think it will take even longer.

“Restaurants are going to need to build the confidence that eating out is safe,” Hillmer said.

While restaurants like Acoustic Café are keeping their doors open, it doesn’t come without risk.

“It is kind of a double-edged sword though because while it’s great that we’re busy and bustling, is it the safest thing,” Hines-Munson said. “The pandemic is far from over and I think we just kind of need to remember that.”

Hillmer said it is safe to eat inside a restaurant taking COVID-19 safety protocols.

She said she expects things to get a little better in the next few months as more people get vaccinated and the weather starts allowing for outdoor dining.

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